Thursday, November 20, 2008


Rodríguez book coverCarmen Rodríguez’s and a body to remember with is a collection of short stories about tears and loss, but finally also laughter and love. Though clearly autobiographical in many ways, the story it tells of an activist who has to flee Chile for Canada in the wake of Pinochet’s coup is narrated through fragments, glimpses of a life marked by resistance and exile. Hence the protagonist's name (when it is provided) is variously Estela de Ramírez (19), Silvia (112), Yolanda Cárcamo (129), and Laura Arzola (154): there are continuities between these figures, but also displacements and differences. The book's Spanish translation, De cuerpo entero ("With the Whole Body"), suggests fullness and plenitude, but the stories themselves resist such a sense of completion.

To put this another way: there's a tension here between a narrative of lack and a narrative of excess.

Clearly, the coup and the exile that follows are deeply traumatic. In the final story, "a balanced diet," the narrator tells of how she heard that her partner had been killed by the Chilean military. Her reaction is immediately visceral: "The vomit came out of my body in the same instant that I realized that Mario was one of the executed ones. Everything became an immense black stain sprinkled with coloured lights" (156). Years later, she would like to think that she is no longer affected in the same way, but her body betrays her: "What's it like to be dead Mario [. . .] I can talk to you without crying [. . .] oh well yes I still cry and probably I will cry for the rest of my life. . . ." (162).

Perhaps the most somber story is one that features another woman, Gloria. Its narrative progresses like a short film, tracking slowly around the room of a house in Vancouver: the camera eye passes over a desk, a dresser, a bed, posters on the wall, until it finally comes to rest on the body of a young woman and her suicide note.

Elsewhere, however, the book's stress is on the ways in which exile and resistance also make for accretion, even multiplication, and a liveliness that laughs in the face of dictatorship. As Rodríguez puts it in her Foreword, "My heart trespasses over borders and stretches over a whole continent to find its home at the two extremes of the Americas: in Chile and in Canada" (14). Or, to return to the collection's concluding story in which two friends meet up once more after "twenty years of absences, a whole life of absences," the stress is not on what has been lost but on the joy that results from the re-encounter: "obviously the military did not count on this good memory, this love: they did not count on this immense desire to live, this propensity to laughter" (165).

Throughout, then, the movement that Rodríguez describes is from loss to excess. Canada itself is, at first, nothing but a black (or white!) hole, a country that Chilean characters cannot even envisage: they can imagine Argentina, they can imagine England, the USA, even Switzerland, but Canada induces no connotations at all. Gradually, however, this "hole called Canada began to take possession of Estela de Ramírez's stomach, chest, throat, head, ears, and mouth" (21). It becomes embodied, and she becomes embodied in turn. When finally the opportunity arises to return to Chile, she hesitates. She is now attached to Canada, part of Canada, too: both legally (as a newly-minted citizen) and, more importantly, affectively. In the crisis that ensues, in which "she realized that her body was the hole and the whole was her" (35), I think the point is not so much that she has identified with nothingness, and so with absence; rather that what was previously absence has now been given substance.

So, finally, this is a book marked by the conjunction "and" that is precisely the sign of addition: Chile and Canada; loss and discovery; death and life; the past and the present; "a mind and a body to remember with" (159; my emphasis).

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Chuck Klosterman's Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is pop analysis: both the analysis of pop, and analysis that aspires to the status of pop. Hence the informality of the style, the (faux) confessionalism, the intermingling of sacred and profane, high and low. A "low culture manifesto" (as the book's subtitle has it) is not quite so "low culture" both because of its self-reflexivity and because of its more or less knowing nods to the entire lineage of cultural manifestos.

If we're going to have pop analysis (and why not, I suppose), personally I prefer Dave Eggers and Nick Hornby to Klosterman. Perhaps that just says that I prefer it when things are more obviously leavened with fiction, with a plot however baggy.

Moreover, Klosterman's conclusions are too pat, too unsatisfying. The essay I like best is probably the one that actually refers to Hornby: a rant against football (sorry, "soccer") as an un-American, indeed unsporting, sport because supposedly it's too egalitarian: "it's the only sport where you can't fuck up. An outcast can succeed simply by not failing" (89). Even so, this is a nice conceit, but it doesn't add up.

Klosterman has clearly never himself played football, let alone found himself subject to the classic humiliation of being the last to be picked for a playground team. Watching but one football movie (I happened recently to see There's Only One Jimmy Grimble) should be enough evidence that suitably sporting hierarchies are as rigidly enforced, perhaps more so, in football as anywhere else.

Indeed, if anything it's the other way around. It's precisely the fluidity of football (which Klosterman translates as "running about and avoiding major collisions" [89]) that makes the comparisons all the more insistent.

Put this another way: as a non-native, I'm always struck by the specialization promoted in US sports. For instance, the fact that American Football has a completely different offensive line from its defensive line; or that the "special teams" only ever come onto the field for a few minutes of each game. Or in baseball, the phenomenon of the "closer," who will pitch at best the last couple of innings; my thought is always that if he's so good, he should be on from the start.

In British sports, such as football but also even cricket, the all-rounder is much more highly valued: the midfielder who can move up or play deep, the striker who can play with both feet, the batsman who can also bowl, for instance. Yes, there are still specialists (and even perhaps increasingly so: David Beckham became little more than a taker of free kicks), but the same players stay on the field the whole time. Even the very best fast bowler has to bat from time to time; there's no equivalent of baseball's "designated hitter."

All the more so, then, in playground and high-school games in which the notional playing positions are all the looser: the fact is that in football, a player is at every moment at least potentially judged as part of entire team, rather than simply as one part in a fragmented team apparatus.

Meanwhile, this is probably a moment to give a nod to my friend Grant Farred, whose book on football, Long Distance Love, has just been published. And also to point out with some pride that I figure (albeit un-named) in the book's very first paragraph.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


The point of Gordon Burn's literary non-fiction profiles of serial killers is, on the face of it, and judging by their titles, to render them ordinary. Hence Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, is to be shown to be "somebody's husband"; and Fred and Rose West, inhabitants of Gloucester's "house of horror," are to be be shown "happy," albeit "happy like murderers."

Peter and Sonia SutcliffeBut, at least in the book on Sutcliffe, Somebody's Husband, Somebody's Son, this strategy rather backfires. Burn finds no link between the Ripper's ordinariness and his horrendous and unprovoked assaults on women. Indeed, the dislocation is all the more horrendous. For instance, Sutcliffe is driving home with a friend one night in 1975 when he spots a woman he thinks may be a prostitute:
slipping out of the car, he quickly caught up with her and mumbled a pleasantry about the weather before striking her twice on the back of her head with a hammer. [. . .] Back in the safety of his own car, he appeared "unusually quiet" to Birdsall; when asked what had taken him so long he replied that he had been "talking to that woman." (145)
Perhaps Burn is reluctant to try to get inside the murderer's head not merely because of a reluctance to dramatize, but also because of what becomes the theme of the ensuing 1981 trial when the Ripper is eventually caught: in Burn's words, it is not so much Sutcliffe who is up in court as the discipline of Psychiatry, which is subject to a "ruthless" and "damaging" examination at the hands of the prosecution lawyers (335). As Sutcliffe's defence rested on a plea of diminished responsibility because of schizophrenia, the courtroom had to ponder the "philosophical riddle: Was he a sane man pretending to be mad? Or a mad man who thought he was sane? Or a mad man who thought he was sane and was pretending to be mad?" (350).

The court's verdict eventually was that Sutcliffe was sane: bad, not mad. The prison system, however, soon relocated him to the secure mental hospital, Broadmoor, where he has been ever since. It is as though the criminal justice system itself were in two minds, strangely and ironically schizophrenic about the issue. Burn himself, then, comes down on no side: his exhaustive, nearly 400-page book never really answers (or even properly addresses) the riddle to which it points.

Burns book coverHappy Like Murderers is a more successful book. Perhaps this is because Burn has learned a lesson or two from the other great chronicler of the Ripper case, David Peace. Burn's account of the Wests is inflected with some of the stylistic gestures that mark Peace's fiction, not least the repetition of key words and phrases, the quick switches between locales and genres, and the use of free indirect discourse through which to imaginatively recreate characters' thought processes and affects.

Or maybe it's just coincidence that Burn seems to have something like the measure of Fred (not so much Rose, perhaps unsurprisingly): and his clue comes from a stylistic tic, the fact that Fred repeatedly referred not just to people as things, but also to things as people. As Burn puts it:
In his many weeks of police interviews after his arrest in 1994, he would repeatedly refer to the body of a murdered person as "it" and to inanimate objects and materials and pieces of equipments--a cattle ramp, a paddling pool, a patio slab--as "him." "As the end of the slab sunk, you put more soil under, or gravel, to level him. As the body sinks, then the slab was tipping. . . Pea gravel. (175)
Hence Burn's observation:
All through [West's] life he would invest his deepest and most complicated emotions--all his most difficult and disturbing thoughts--not in people, but in things. Places and things. People as things. (105-106)
So it's not really true that West was "emotionally null" (405). It is not affectlessness that is at issue here, as indeed Burn's title also indicates; rather, it's the horrific consequences of a very particular regime of affect.

Friday, November 07, 2008


I seem to have been podcast. Eat your heart out Ricky Gervais.

In my case, the podcast is mainly about how I don't like WebCT and similar educational technology, but do like Wikipedia.